Friday, 9 October 2015

Le Gateau Chocolat at Contact

It’s been several years coming but Manchester finally got a taste of Le Gateau Chocolat’s sweet sweet award-winning talent at Contact last night. Forget lip-syncing for your life, the big, bearded and beautiful Le Gateau Chocolat is first and foremost a vocalist of genuine power, and while she might like to cheekily introduce herself as a ‘complete asshole’, her stage persona is life-giving and full of heart – but let’s talk about that voice… Baritone, velvet, dextrous, LOUD – you have never heard the Great American Songbook performed like this. Breakneck trips through the best of the musicals are punctuated with heart-breaking interludes where wigs and music are stripped back for moments of real tenderness. At one point a delicate ‘Hoppipolla’-style piano scale underpins the most touching Whitney Houston interpretation you might ever hear.

The best drag performers have comedy and tragedy at the tips of their gloves, and the music of Ms Chocolat moves deftly between the two. The potted version of Les Miserables will make you want to fast forward through every musical film ever with Gateau on the couch bedside you – hilarious. It’s offset emotionally with moments such as an astonishing tribute to Paul Robeson, where Gateau brings her basso profundo to the painful, beautiful, dignified slave narrative of Robeson’s ‘Old Man River’. It’s a very moving and special moment to see a large, powerful and adored black queer body and voice in all their power.  Queer culture should always be about celebrating that which the mainstream designates as ‘odd’ and ‘other’. Le Gateau Chocolat celebrates herself, and the audience follows lovingly. ‘I have a law degree you know,’ she says, as she switches from one dazzling lycra creation to the next. Defying expectations is where great art begins, of course.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Queer Revue!

Here's a cool press release about my new night happening this Friday...

The demolition of Legends is still mourned by Manchester’s LGBT community, the closing of Essential marked the last gay superclub in the city, and Kraak, home to a host of LGBT nights, has shut up shop. But sometimes in Manchester the answer as to where to put on a party can be right under your nose.

A Queer Revue! is an experimental venture mixing club DJs with a range of cabaret style performances that will take place on October 2nd at Band On The Wall. Over two centuries old, Band On The Wall began life as The George & Dragon Pub before becoming a renowned music venue in the 1930s and undergoing the change that made its Mancunian nickname official.

A Queer Revue! is the newest night to make a home there, brainchild of DJ, promoter and creative, Greg Thorpe, co-founder of Drunk At Vogue (you may have seen them launch the last two Manchester International Festivals) and resident/promoter at Off The Hook (City Life’s ‘Best Gay Night’ 2013).

‘I’ve always admired how the Vauxhall Tavern in London is integral to the identity of Duckie. It’s possible this is the first official LGBT party at Band On The Wall, but drag acts like Diamond Lil and Neville St Claire were regular performers there in the late 1950s, and that history of showgirls and servicemen, all that rowdy entertainment fits so nicely into queer history. I like that it’s in the Northern Quarter, but also on the edge of the city – that’s a very queer thing too,’ says Greg.

‘Once you’ve played at the MIF Theatre you don’t want to go backwards and at Band On The Wall we won’t have to. We have a historic venue at our disposal that includes terrific light, stage and backstage facilities that will give performers chance to shine, plus the DJs will love the soundsystem.’

The first line-up for A Queer Revue! combines three of the city’s favourite LGBT parties from the Queer Alt Manchester collective:

Bollox has been on the scene for a decade, thriving on indomitable spirit, loyal punters and eclectic playlists, and they throw in dressing up boxes, fledgling drag queens, bring-and-buy sales and more into the mix. DJ Rod Connolly and Bollox drag hostess Lill will both perform at A Queer Revue!

Cha Cha Boudoir is home to drag queen collective, The Family Gorgeous. Once a month at the Boudoir, Cheddar Gorgeous, Anna Phylactic and their troupe of queens satirise and pay homage to popular culture with their radical drag competition. DJ Danny Olsson-Lane and artiste Anna Phylactic will represent Cha Cha at A Queer Revue! with thrilling dance support from Tom Kuzniar.

Off The Hook is the long-running queer party playing hip-hop and RnB to a loyal crowd. At A Queer Revue! Greg will take the decks, with specially-commissioned dances from gifted choreographer Joshua Hubbard and the amazing Yandass from FlexN, who recently took MIF by storm.

Plus, in the beautiful adjoining Picturehouse Bar, queer short films will play on the giant screen while writer Adam ‘Beyoncé’ Lowe will be on hand performing as ‘The Telephone Poet’. A Queer Revue! will be hosted by a different guest compere each time and for the first party that duty falls to Salford’s finest drag powerhouse, Joyce D’Vision.

Greg says, ‘I like to think about the word ’Queer’ in both its old and new meanings. I like the sense of oddity and intrigue it has, and of course it’s a way for people to identify themselves on the LGBT+ spectrum. It’s a versatile and passionate word, I want people to be less afraid of it. The word ‘revue’ opens the night to all kinds of performance. In future I’d like comedy to sit alongside pop, burlesque with hip-hop, I want to make ‘vaudeville disco’ a thing…’

Friday 2nd October, 10pm till 3am
25 Swan Street, Manchester M4 5JZ, Tel: 0161 832 1111

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Heaven Adores You

I watch the Elliott Smith documentary and leave the cinema feeling crumpled and happysad as expected. Everything seems so long ago now. When I get out onto the street the light has become incredible. The pavement is full of people not walking but taking photographs of the tops of the buildings which are visible in incredible detail in the hour before sunset. I play ‘Needle in the Hay’ and take the Whitworth Street/Piccadilly/Back Piccadilly route to the Northern Quarter to fetch my bike which I left there three days ago. My battery goes and ‘Needle’ cuts out before the chorus. When I get to my bike the removable squishy seat which I should have removed has been removed and so has the front wheel. I’m not upset. I found him in the basement of my old building, we’ve had a good innings, someone might ride him again soon. I take my D-lock at least which is worth more than the bike and walk to get the tram with my headphones still on, playing nothing. A gorgeous girl in a hijab is taking a ton of selfies at the stop. Someone Tweets: ‘Please someone take me for a beer in the sun’. A group of Spanish people are photographing a lad who is holding onto the back of a tram and being pulled along on his skateboard. Just before Cornbrook, the saddest place in the world, the astonishing sun rests in a gas tower on the horizon just for a second.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

‘Manchester: In Residents’ ... #32 John

‘I remember my winter, trudging up to Oldham on two buses, sat in the back room with endless tea and a whole rotisserie chicken…’

What’s your name?

What do you do?
I am a writer, predominantly about clubs and dance music, for several publications including The Guardian, Time Out, Skiddle and The Skinny, for whom I was Clubs Editor, and from where all of this stemmed. When I see distant or elderly relatives, I joke that ‘I write in advance about what most people can’t remember!’ No, they don’t tend to laugh either. It’s a real struggle. I also work for a research company occasionally, and still get my head down with the odd bout of office temping. I am trying to distance myself from the brain prison of data entry.

Where do you live?
For the past year or so, I’ve lived in Chorlton, home to the highest proportional home burglary rate in the UK. So you can assume that if this questionnaire drifts off into the ether before your mind does, I have simply been robbed of my ability to complete it. I had always liked Chorlton even when living in the city centre, but the Metrolink made it much more appealing. Plus there’s cheap swimming and moderately priced ale to offset the constant climate of fear that you could return home any time to nothing but a dope stained set of late 70s upholstery.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.
As a teenager in a North Wales village, in no uncertain terms I wanted to get the fuck out, and fast. I considered going to university in Kingston Upon Thames, Derby and a few other spots, but really wanted Manchester (not so) deep down. I just about squeezed in to MMU to study Film and Media, which I screwed up and dropped out of after two years. Somehow, with almost no financial means and only temporary jobs flyering alongside a brief stint as caretaker managing a declining chain of sex shops in Northern satellite towns, I managed to stick around. Soon to be 27, when life still feels uncertain, I remember my winter trudging up to Oldham on two buses, sat in the back room with endless tea and a whole rotisserie chicken, avoiding eye contact with the endless money shots repeated on a first generation plasma screen inches from the counter. The only security I had was a hammer stashed in a small cupboard.

I moved to Manchester for ‘the scene’, although I wasn’t sure what that was at the time. I did stand up for a few years and ended up working on a few writing projects for television and so on. I was much better at the latter side of things. Eventually, my interest drifted more toward music, and dance music especially. I started to DJ (sometimes badly, dropping random Panorama Bar house in between Foals remixes at Now Wave), and somehow kept my head above water. Some best of times, most worst of times.

I have lived in town in pokey student flats with TVs tuned only to Sky Action – on which I watched the finale of Alien Resurrection on a daily basis – then in Rusholme, where a burglar shat in my yard and a DNA officer inspecting the scene asked me if I’d ever met Steve Coogan, ‘and was he a dickhead in reality too?’ I lived above Abduls, on whose food I briefly subsisted, stealing wi-fi from a Chinese exchange student and never having to heat the flat, which was so warm in the summer months, I was physically unable to occupy it most of the time. Eventually I moved to a flat near Piccadilly, and lived with a rotating cast of characters, starring me as landlord and handyman.

What’s great about this city?
It’s a massive cliché, but almost everyone in Manchester loves music, and many more become readily engrossed in the culture surrounding it. Perhaps this is true of any large condensed populace, but the people are largely very funny too. But it’s mainly great for all the brilliant, life changing experiences and opportunities it has afforded me over the years. Or, perhaps I have afforded them to myself? Perhaps the real city, is inside myself…? (It’s not, it’s in Manchester.)

What’s not so great?
I think the city centre as a whole has declined rapidly, and the atmosphere is markedly sour compared to less than a decade ago. The cuts to resources for the homeless or those with mental health or drug problems has disenfranchised people on a huge scale; From a humanitarian angle, it’s unjustifiable, and from a more cynical tourist board perspective, it doesn’t present the city in the best light. Obviously the blame here doesn’t necessarily lie locally, though. I also worry that the city’s small enough to be almost entirely franchised and operated by half a dozen powerhouses across retail, clubbing, dining… It’s great that there’s money and ambition available still, but a streak of independence and even the sort of radicalism that the city’s cultural heritage often trumpets wouldn’t go amiss, albeit from those with far more imagination and conviction than most of us, myself included, are able to offer.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?
I don’t have much of a taste or sense for good architecture, although I’d like to. I enjoy the corridor of university and residential buildings on Whitworth Street, and the general feel and sights of the Palace/Cornerhouse junction. I seriously hope that the latter building stays put.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?
My favourite living Mancunian is probably Kosmonaut’s bookings manager and former Piccadilly Records staff member, Pasta Paul. Not only is he one of my favourite DJs - which is saying something as he can’t mix for shit - but he loves the city more than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s still dashing around from gig to gig, opening to opening and record shop to record shop without a shred of disillusion, or the usual ego and expectations that consume some ‘local characters’. He has achieved what is surely one of the UK’s largest network of friends without ever succumbing to Facebook, and has not but a bad word to say of anyone. He is an immaculately dressed force for good in what can occasionally feel like a sea of ridiculously attired cynics.

Pasta Paul aside, I would have really loved to have met Tony Wilson, especially as I have a fondness for old Granada TV idents as much as acid house. Like many, I feel like Manchester’s musical heritage has occasionally been frequently pillaged for personal gain by many of those instrumental in it, but in and of itself, Factory is perhaps one of the most important labels of all time, and yes, Vinni Riley is good music to chill out to.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?
I love clubs, and I love them best when they’re dark, loud, full of smoke and not entirely welcoming at first glance. I really think Soup Kitchen’s basement is, on a good night, up there with the best in terms of a space to dance, and definitely one of the few dancefloors I feel most comfortable playing records to. Dan, who books Soup Kitchen’s club, has afforded it an amazing reputation in the face of massive competition, never allowing the listings to go stale, and maintains a wry sense of humour or perspective when I’d potentially be losing my mind.

I really like Albert Hall, which is a great example of what happens when several ambitious organisations take a risk on a venue that probably seemed obvious to a knowing few for so long. I love This and That, which even despite a few dodgy visits of hundreds, will always remain my personal victor in the endless Northern Quarter Rice and Three war. I still love Common, whatever’s on the wall there, and whatever they do to make their fries taste really good.

I enjoy strolling through Granby Row, beneath the railway arches, which feels pleasantly secluded and is as good of a bench sitting spot as any in the city. As well as the Archimedes statue, I particularly enjoy the ‘Vimto Bottle’ monument, which I genuinely thought was a really durable inflatable promoting the drink for far longer than I should have.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?
Following on from the above, I’d love to see more green space, which has always felt exclusive to the greater suburbs. I hope one of the occasional plans to transform Stevenson Square or the like into a greener environment comes through. But that it is genuine green space, not a continuation the council have of adding relatively miniscule patches of grass amid largely stone or concrete areas. I would rather see relatively miniscule patches of stone and concrete amid large areas of grass. I know you’re not supposed to say that sort of thing nowadays, but deal with it, incredibly well paid town planners!

If I was Mayor for a day I would …
Make sure I went somewhere dead nice to get a sandwich at lunch, and then keep the receipt, say I was having a meeting, and claim it back on expenses at a later date.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?
Mick Hucknall.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Montage Of Heck

I still listen to new music all the time but I think the period of my life is over where music has the power to impact on me so hard that it’s like being in love or becoming politicised or finding out a truth about yourself. Feelings of that intensity probably won’t happen now just from hearing an album. It’s a bit sad to think about it that way but I’m fine with it. I know who I am a bit more these days and there are things in life just as important as music, and some even more so.

In 1990 that was not true. I was twelve and pin-balling between two great albums released the year before; ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ by De La Soul, and ‘The Stone Roses’. I was young with not much frame of reference but music gave me a sudden and profound understanding that there was a much bigger and better world out there, with an astounding soundtrack. (I am living in it now, thank God).

That young period of my life has expanded in my memory, maybe because in the ‘90s all I cared about was music and in those days you had to wait for your music. You waited for Top Of The Pops, you waited for The Chart Show, you waited till you had enough money to buy a record, you waited for the record shop to open or you waited for your records to arrive in the post, you waited for the inky weeklies and the glossy monthlies, you waited for the radio to play the right song, you waited and waited. Perhaps that’s why it feels as if I’d already been listening to music for a long time when ‘Teen Spirit’ landed in September 1991. I was thirteen and a half then and I can’t overstate how much my sister and I loved that record and how much we loved Kurt on sight. We should have been afraid or unnerved, at least by the dark gorgeous video that constantly looped on MTV, but because Kurt looked so frail and indie yet sounded so heavy it hit you from both sides and never stopped.

Henry Rollins said ‘Nirvana slayed the hair bands’ and whether you agree or not, at the time the heavy guitars we craved seemed like the province of Guns N Roses (who we loved and then discarded – they seemed ludicrous post-Nevermind) and their sexist West Coast soundalikes. It’s possible I heard the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa the week before ‘Teen Spirit’, or at the latest immediately after, and I got Trompe Le Monde on release in ‘91, so I was at least moving in the right direction, but Nirvana blew everything up in minutes. Even now I find it hard to credit that a band whose impression on me was so overwhelming and has been so enduring were only around for two years in total from ‘Teen Spirit’ to the final double A-side of (the overrated) ‘All Apologies’ and the poignant, brilliant, bookend re-imaging of ‘Teen Spirit’ that was ‘Rape Me’. Kurt was gone four months later.

When you walk into a film like Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck you are sad already because there’s no getting away from the ending you already know, but Morgen has offset that anxious anticipation of loss with such weird artistry and lingering intimacy, moments of absolute comedy, and such a brilliant devoted use of Nirvana’s music, re-imagined, stripped down or slowed down, orchestrated or left raw, that you are in Kurt’s grubby and funny and hurt world for longer than one album ever allowed, and it’s overwhelming and addictive – two adjectives which were pretty much the blessing and curse of Nirvana and Kurt.

Montage Of Heck is a film about Kurt and watches its subject in as isolated a way as it’s possible to do in film without making something abstract. There are no discussions, per se, not about the legacy, nothing about the Seattle scene, the word grunge is never mentioned, Dave Grohl is not included, Courtney only speaks a few times (and for one of the world’s greatest music interviewees makes a bland showing) – this is all about Kurt from birth to death and sets his life and writing and personality against fame and pain and the power of his songs. When ‘Territorial Pissings’ hits the speakers it is such a spectacular kick in the guts that it’s hard to sit still. I thought people might stand up. I wanted to. Conversely, the arrival of ‘Teen Spirit’ is handled with a genius understated stroke (but stay for the very very end of the credits for some emotional comeback).  

Among the stories about Kurt you might never have heard, and certainly the footage you won’t have seen of tiny Kurt becoming the kind of messy movie-star-handsome man you want to instantly be friends with, there are two moments that left me heartsick. One is the cut between footage of baby Kurt and baby Frances, who could be twins. The second is a grown up Kurt visibly nodding out with Frances in his lap and a drawling Courtney trying to cut the baby’s hair. It’s truly pitiful, and whatever Kurt went through as a child, at least nobody did that to him. Frances co-produced the movie and I wonder what it was like to see that footage for the first time. It’s almost certainly heroin and it’s very hard to watch.

Where footage and photos run dry, animations take over and I understand that some people won’t be into that aspect but the aesthetic of it seems so right for the time, referencing the zine/poster look from the ‘alternative’ world of that period, and it never turns Kurt into something you feel he’s not. It feels authentic. In addition, the continuous animation of his notebook lyrics and artwork is probably my favourite aspect, aside from the music. The feeling of an invisible hand and a blank page coming alive with the non-stop weirdness that would eventually become known world-wide is a powerful tribute to Kurt as a writer.  

If you’ve read other reviews it’s no spoiler that the film doesn’t focus on the method or circumstances of Kurt’s death, and certainly not on any conspiracies around it, though it does seem to accept the Rohypnol near-miss in Rome as a suicide attempt so is not entirely a fence-sitting piece. At two and quarter hours it might be the longest amount of time you’ve spent in Nirvana’s company for a while so prepare to feel it all again. You’ll be glad to recall there were so many highs and only one big low that I guess we’re all still going through. I had a ticket to see Nirvana play at the Manchester G-MEX in March 1994. I'd just turned sixteen. After the Rome incident they re-scheduled the gig for April but by the time the re-scheduled date came around Kurt had already been dead for a week. I came that close to seeing them. I have my unused ticket still. When they cremate me or turn me into an apple tree or whatever, it will probably be in my pocket.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

30 Days of FIN: my Cornerhouse closing project



A simple enough word seen in the darkness of the cinema that means a special journey has come to an end.

During my work as researcher and music producer of ‘The Storming’ – the final installation that takes place at Cornerhouse on April 4th – I have, like an accidental snowball, been gathering up stories, memories and assorted ephemera relating to our unique Manchester arts institution.

As we count down the days to the closing of Cornerhouse – towards the FIN of the film of Cornerhouse’s life – I will be using the Cornerhouse Twitter account to send into the world a selection of images, historical detail, videos, anecdotes and memories relating to Cornerhouse.

Mimicking human memory, my timeline will be un-chronological, the posts gleefully abstract and enticing, but the stories and feelings they communicate will all be genuine. They will hopefully reach out to all those who have loved Cornerhouse.

My previous Twitter intervention for Manchester Central Library can be seen here.

Watch out for the hashtag #30DaysofFIN from the Cornerhouse Twitter account, every day until April 4th when my final Tweets will be sent live from The Storming.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

‘Tuesdays at Tescos’, HOME and the Re:Play Festival

Victoria Baths, and Ancoats, and now Number One First Street… The soft launch of HOME is bringing us ever-closer to HOME itself and it’s a genuinely exciting feeling. From the makeshift theatre foyer on the second floor of this smart office building, serenaded by a live guitar player, and with a lovely craft beer in hand, you can look out (through snowflakes in my case) and see the new building emerging over the way.

On Tuesday, fittingly, I saw ‘Tuesdays at Tescos’ inside the pleasant temporary performance space. You might have seen me Facebooking about how good it was. The final performance is tonight, and you should treat yourself. You can even get half-price ticket deals on the HOME website.

The play is a one-hour monologue spoken by Pauline, a trans woman renegotiating her relationship with her ageing father now that she has been able to reveal her true self, or, ‘Me. As I am. Now.’, as she says, softly and repeatedly like a mantra.

I came away feeling very moved by Scott Kentell’s performance. He brought a gentle sincerity to a very good script. His performance was assured and insightful (I can’t imagine Simon Callow’s was a better, and I’m a fan).

The director Sue Womersely and performer Scott Kentall are interviewed here:

‘Tuesdays…’ is part of the 2015 Re:Play Festival, an annual selection of theatre that gives audiences a second chance to see the best work from the previous twelve months.

On Friday night I’ll be looking back at a year of comedy with the Re:Play Breakthrough Comedian of the Year competition. I need all the inspiration I can get for my own foray into stand up this year, of course…

Thursday, Friday and Saturday gives you another chance to catch Jenny May Morgan’s portrayal of a questionably-talented author of women’s erotica pushing her latest work, complete with mucky novel extracts… An Evening of Filth and Despair promises to reach into dark and delicious Julia Davis comedy territory.

On Saturday night, Chris Hoyle’s play Two Spirits dramatises the story of the three Sioux Warriors who came to Salford in the late nineteenth-century as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring show. This coming together of disparate cultures was researched heavily by the playwright during time spent in Dakota and a documentary about his time there will screen after the play. Theatre and film for one ticket, not to be missed.

Re:Play is not only a great chance to see quality new work so cheaply but it will also whet your appetite for the big HOME-coming too…

Check the full line up HERE.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Queer Contact, Queer Media, Queer February!

In February I am honoured to be speaking at a panel event which is part of a larger media event which is part of the one of the most exciting festivals happening in Manchester this year. It’s Queer Contact, and the line-up is so good it makes you wish it was actually Pride and that there was a parade at the start.

From the 5th to the 15th a plethora of queer arts comes to Contact and beyond with a program of music, theatre, performance, comedy and more.

National treasure David McAlmont launches proceedings with a live performance on the 5th, alongside the talented Mr Guy Davies, which, from experience, I can promise will be intimate, fun and very touching.

Justin Vivian Bond is another sensational name on the bill and is in town for not one but two performances, including a collaboration with our very own David Hoyle. Bond is a trans icon of cabaret and is here to share Valentine’s weekend with us, using both original songs and familiar cover versions to interrogate and celebrate love. Expect to be stimulated and moved. On top of that there is a related JVB event with a screening of Shortbus and a Q&A to follow.

The Queer Media Festival is a highlight for me. Almost thirty media professionals (and me!) will gather to talk about storytelling, their work, their identities and career paths. There will be films screened, performances, a news broadcast, and a gathering of like-minded but diverse creative individuals under one roof. The event is promising to be a great opportunity for students, for peer-learning and networking, for idea generating, for meeting and greeting, and for exposure to new ways of thinking. Speakers include V-Squared aka Vinny and Luke (YouTube stars), John Bird Media (blogger), Tim Macavoy (Director at InterTech Diversity Forum), Anna McNay (arts editor, DIVA), Paul Brand (Northern Political Correspondent, ITV) and Addie Orfila (producer, Hollyoaks). Tickets here.

Queer Contact has comedy covered with a six-comic line-up for the Comedy Playground, while word nerds will thrill at the selection of poets, novelists and playwrights sharing their practices at Paul Burston’s Polari on the 10th. Kate O’Donnell explores trans identity with humour and music, while site specific drama takes a police raid on a Victorian drag ball as its thrilling subject. The Vogue Ball at Gorilla sees competing Houses dance to victory, or defeat, while Mother’s Ruin host one of their far-from-usual cabaret spectaculars. The closing party, Love Art, is in the hands of the creators of Cha Cha Boudoir so couldn’t be in better hands.

Explore the full line-up for yourself right here and treat yourself to something new and challenging. There will be queer bohemia aplenty at Contact, but all across the city February is turning into a high point in the cultural calendar – Seeing Queerly has a terrific line up, while the first Manchester-based LGBT History Festival provides the context for how far LGBT people have come. February is a chance to learn and connect, network and create, and be touched by art and performance. Please be a part of it. The rest of 2015 has a lot to live up to…

Thursday, 15 January 2015

This video is quintessential Manhattanchester

'Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies
The past is your present, the future is mine...'

A girl racing home from her job in a pizza parlour to get ready for a night at the Funhouse in New York City, Barny Sumner and Gillian Gilbert turning up to the club in shorts, that quotation above... this 1983 video couldn't be more Manhattanchester if it tried... 

'Confusion' - New Order (1983)

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Projects

You can probably tell from my output that my pursuits are pretty varied – this blog, that blog, Off The Hook, Drunk At Vogue, The Queer Forum, writing, and the rest of my freelance work which I love and which pays the rent. The number of things I have on the go at any one time is a bit dizzying, and there are a few reasons for that: I’m interested in lots of things. Too many things really. I’m trying to find out what I’m good at and I want to be good at everything. I don’t want to miss out on anything. 

When I turned 30 I’d been working in an office for eight years, in a profession I enjoyed but which I knew by that point didn’t entirely suit me. I applied for lots of jobs in London that I didn’t get, and I started to panic a bit. I decided if I was going to stay in my job then I needed something outside of it to keep me going, so I set myself little tasks, the first of which was to start a blog, this blog, which I started in April 2008. I had no readers of course, and not always much of an idea what to write about but I immediately felt better about things. Later that year I was invited to play my first DJ gig, and so that became the second thing on my informal list of 'things to try'.

As time went on I added things to the list in order to push myself, to stay inspired, to find my limits and to fight complacency and boredom. I’ve done some big things that were never on the list, like becoming a freelancer, which brings ambitions and aims all of its own. After six months of freelancing I felt great, even if money was difficult in my tricky start-up year. Soon after that I reached my half-life anniversary in Manchester and took the opportunity to take stock.  

I’ve been freelancing for a year now and it’s been a challenge and an adventure, but the list of ‘things to try’ still exists, needling me to get on with it. That’s what I’m going to do. I have formalised the list as ‘The Projects’, and as with my New Year’s Resolutions, if I go public with something I feel twice as motivated to get it done. 

Here are all eleven of ‘The Projects’ as they currently stand, with little summaries for the ones I have achieved. I am genuinely holding myself to these and I am not adding anything new until this lot is done, or at least attempted. Something amazing might come out of this, or nothing at all, but the feeling of having tried is really the best feeling.

1.     Start a blog
Blogs were everywhere in 2008 but were becoming a bit passé so I didn’t think I would stick with this thing for long, but seven years later, here we are. I’ve met some of Manchester’s finest people through writing this blog, people who I would otherwise have no reason or nerve to talk to. I’ve had 270,000 page visits to date, messages from around the world, a few hundred quid made, free tickets for wonderful events when I couldn’t afford them myself, but mainly a bit of dialogue with the world, which is what I have always wanted.

2.     Be a DJ
Being a DJ was somebody else’s idea for me to begin with but once I start something I have to see it through, and DJing proved to be the perfect activity for someone like me, who likes a party but is also shy. I love it. DJ culture I can do without and I’m not really a part of that. It’s a bit macho and competitive for me. People will always use music to be cool, no matter what age they are. I think people are sometimes surprised that I’m a DJ because of how uncool I am and I’m glad! I wanted to be good at it though and I’ve really tried. I’ve been profiled in the Manchester Evening News and Attitude, I’ve played at Festival No. 6, Manchester International Festival, HomoElectric, GAZE Film Festival, Northern Quarter Festival, Homotopia, Vogue Fabrics, Islington Mill, Clique, Bollox and more. I’ve never played a recorded set in my life and I never would. Club promotion itself I can do without, and if it wasn’t for the chore of that I would be DJing much more often. I’ve had so many special moments DJing that I think only other DJs would understand. Even if I stopped tomorrow, those would be the moments that made me feel like I really did it.

3.     Start a clubnight
The first Off The Hook at Kitsch was one of my favourite ever nights out in Manchester, and the only Off The Hook that I didn’t DJ at. I was a resident from the second party onwards and I took over the night when the original promoters had shelved it. I gave it a re-brand and a new venue and a year later it won the City Life award for ‘Best Gay Night’. If I’d been kind to myself I could’ve ticked this one off the list then and there but I wanted my very own baby. Enter Drunk At Vogue. I’d daydreamed about the night for a couple of years, had even pitched it somewhere and had it knocked back, and then shelved it. It eventually came to life as the collaboration you see today. I have learned a lot from collaborating, that it’s very hard to do, but that it has loads of benefits, that your baby will never ever turn out like you think, but that you’ll love it anyway. Drunk At Vogue started in November 2011. Then we had our first birthday, then a few months later we threw the launch party for the Manchester International Festival. I am very glad I didn’t tick number 2 off the list too soon.

4.     Get a Masters
I wasn’t done studying, I wanted to read more books, I wanted to finish writing a novel, a proper one this time, with supervision and a deadline, and I wanted to do something subversive and uncool with the money I was making from DJing. So I did an MA. It had been on my list way before these set of circumstances arrived, and to be honest I thought that I would go and study Shakespeare at Masters Level. I had ducked out of that very option when I was 21, despite getting my place at Manchester and my funding from the Academy. Instead I went to the Writing School at MMU when I was in my thirties and wrote a novel about Shakespearean culture. I got a Distinction for it. I had my graduation party with my family and friends in the baking sunshine on Albert Square at the MIF Pavilion. I was so happy. I learned a lot. I met great people and read some magnificent books. The course is good, go and do it. Number 4, you are done.

5.     Get paid to write
A hundred years ago I filed some album reviews for The Big Issue the week before they laid off most of their Northern freelancers and disappeared off down south. The cheque I got for that work (£36 if I recall) was the most satisfying money I‘d ever earned. I got the bug but my timing was terrible and it took me a long while to get back here. Being paid to write, in an era where anyone with a keyboard is a writer, is validation, for better or worse. Writing is a profession that people not only invite you to do for free, but often expect it, in some cases demand it. I have had dozens of people over the years discover my blog and approach me to write for them. Often when I enquire about a fee they become unpleasant. Often I am told that I will be paid in 'exposure' for my blog. ‘But you found me,’ I always say to them. ‘I am exposed.’ I never write for those people. If somebody gives you a fee it is professional, respectful, honest, and yes, it's validation, and it’s a validation that comes tenfold when it is the thing you love doing most. Don’t take your writers for granted, and writers: try not to work for free.

6.     Write a novel
This is the one... I have written a very short and very bad novella about a temp who wins the Lottery and goes on an insane odyssey with the girl who lives downstairs. I have written a longer and slightly better novel about five gay men whose lives intersect in a weird post-modern way around the lonely vacuous world of Canal Street and a desolate Manchester city centre. I have written a longer and much better novel about digging up Shakespeare’s bones and the effect it has on a world obsessed with him. Trying to write a novel is one of the great sorrows and frustrations of my life. I can’t explain why I even like it. Every other activity in the world disrupts and distracts from fiction. So many good ideas and great lines vanish into the ether if you aren’t able to give them your full attention. Being a novelist is time-consuming and tiring and wonderful. It deserves my full attention. My novel needs a damn good third draft and my intention is to give it my all and let my other ambitions slide by the wayside until this is done. I want it published. This Project should be entitled, ‘Publish a novel’. This is the point at which a jack of all trades has to try and be the master of one. Of all the things on The Projects list, if I don’t see this novel through I will die disappointed in myself. Do you hear me?

7.     Try stand-up comedy
This is where it gets scary. And this is as far as I’ve got with the list. Kind of five-and-a-half down, five-and-a-half to go I suppose. None of these are pipe dreams though. I have already signed up to workshop some stand-up material this coming Saturday. I have never done anything like this before. I think I am a bit funny, and I have done lots of public speaking, but the two have rarely crossed paths. But I love stand up and I am going to try it for myself. I’m terrified. What am I doing? Stay tuned.

And here is the rest of the list. So no biggies, huh…?

8.     Write and stage a play

9.     Curate an exhibition

10.   Be an artist

11.   Find some work outside Manchester

 See you on the other side...

Monday, 12 January 2015

Motionary Art-Oids in Manchester (or, Video Art in the City)

There’s a ton of great video art showing in Manchester right now. Tomorrow night (Tuesday 13th) at Cornerhouse, there’s an hour-long screening of a compendium of film work by Margaret Salmon, including both early material and new works in progress. Salmon’s subject matter is the everyday, her medium is realism and her forte is detail. Catch a Q&A with the artist after the screening.

'A Tiger's Skin' by Chris Paul Daniels

Over at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, you can watch some excellent video art by Chris Paul Daniels and Sun Xun. Daniels’ main piece is ‘A Tiger’s Skin’, an engaging layered video triptych consisting of the artist’s documentary response to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 film, ‘Chung Kuo, Cina’ which was commissioned then banned by Mao. Daniels also has three shorter pieces showing, including one with a snippet of not-to-be-missed Chinese disco music. In the rear gallery, a selection of Sun Xun’s animations combine unnerving but beautiful imagery with myth, legend and philosophy. ‘What happened in the year of the dragon’ is a UK first showing and is genuinely brilliant. There’s also a defiantly weird and captivating 3D film showing in the dark room, and more besides. It’s a major solo collection hot on the heels of Sun Xun’s Asia Triennial collection.

Lastly, video art makes a great showing at Castlefield Gallery’s ‘30 years of the Future’ exhibition. For this anniversary collection the gallery have invited friends and past artists to nominate the work of an artist who shows great promise. The video work on show includes powerful advertising satire from Thomas Yeomans, queer agit-pop from Evan Ifekoya, and lots lots more over the two floor space. The whole collection is great, in fact, but the video work packs a powerful, funny and sad punch, depending where you start. Treat your eyes. Do not miss.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Queer Narratives

Lord knows I love Larry Kramer but I was underwhelmed by the 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart, Kramer’s drama about the formation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first body to attempt to tackle the mysterious illness we now know as the AIDS pandemic. The play was originally staged in 1985. Kramer then wrote a screen version for direction by Ryan Murphy last year, in which there was somehow less of a sense that the world didn’t care about a disease killing New York’s ‘undesirables’, than that the disease itself was actually only happening to a dozen people in a telephone crisis centre. The world felt oddly remote, and not for the right reasons. In 1969, Kramer’s sexy screenplay update of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love won him an Oscar nomination, but time didn’t seem to be working in his favour for a twenty-first century Normal Heart. There was something of the clunky and anachronistic exposition we are all supposed to accept in this post-Downton Abbey world, but I was oddly unmoved by it, plus I straight up did not rate Jim Parsons. Having said that, Julia Roberts gave a great turn as the Virginia Woolf-like scientist providing a lone voice of reason and restraint as the virus gathered pace; Mark Ruffalo I could happily watch sanding door frames with the sound off; and Joe Mantello’s manic diatribe as the body count hopelessly increased, was, I think, award-winning stuff. But the road was full of rocks to get you there.

If you want a lesson in narrative grace, watch Transparent. In fact if you want a lesson in most of the important skills of contemporary drama, Transparent has them – script, pace, casting, story, you name it. And it doesn’t make things easy on itself. Turning-point scenes happen off-screen, there are numerous flashbacks, temporal dislocation, narrative uncertainty. But it’s all water tight, and so consistently and persistently emotionally fraught that it’s best to sit back and not speak for a while after each episode. It’s also the most genuinely queer thing I’ve seen in ages. The fluidity of gender and sexual identity is practically torrential in Transparent. It’s a story that’s as much about navigating human desire across all manner of boundaries/binaries as it is about a trans woman – the blindingly talented Jeffrey Tambor as Maura – coming out to her family of adult children. It’s listed on IMDb under ‘Comedy’ but I can’t think what for – other than as some kind of categorical titillation to prevent a straighter audience being deterred. Regardless, it does have plenty of funny moments, effortlessly and circumstantially funny that is, and therefore real comedy, the comedy of life rolling on with pitfalls and errors. What I like most about it though is that it has is no discernible interest in ‘normalising’ trans or queer experience – doing so would cost the story the uniqueness that convinces you that you have never seen anything like this before.